Business groups worry about “political point scoring” on 457 worker visa regulations

SmartCompany, Thursday, November 17 2016:

Labor and the Coalition are going head to head on the future of 457 skilled worker visas as the small business community calls on both parties to fix the problems with the existing system instead of reworking it altogether.

Earlier this week Opposition Leader Bill Shorten released a comprehensive “Fairer Temporary Work Visa” policy he said would focus on boosting the number of Australians in jobs while preventing exploitation of overseas workers, including tougher labour market testing measures for businesses applying for skilled workers on temporary visas, and stricter conditions for visa holders once they arrive in Australia.

Labor is putting a focus on keeping Australian jobs open to local workers, which has attracted support from the other side of parliament, including Coalition MP George Christensen, who reportedly wants no more 457 visas issued in his electorate of Dawson, Queensland.

However, business groups are critical of Labor’s plans, saying that business owners who genuinely need skilled assistance from abroad are already spending a big chunk of time on compliance measures.

“Employers taking on workers on 457 visas already face close scrutiny to combat misuse and exploitation, but Labor is seeking to impose extra regulation through ineffective and time-consuming labour market testing,” Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive James Pearson said in a statement on the issue.

“This inflexibility damages local businesses that cannot access a skilled worker, such as a mechanic or nurse, and so need to wade through a regulatory quagmire.”

Read more: Backpacker tax scrapped, but not everyone is happy about what happens next 

On Wednesday afternoon, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton announced a change to 457 visa conditions that will apply from this weekend, meaning visa holders will only be able to stay in Australia for 60 days after their employment terms end, rather than 90 days; a policy that was gazetted in October this year.

“The change will assist in ensuring that the 457 programme meets its intent of acting as a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, Australian workers,” Minister Dutton said.

Regulation and working visas

There are a number of working visa issues on the table in federal parliament at the moment, including the yet to be resolved backpacker tax, which is still being fought out in the Senate after the government dropped its proposed 32.5% tax rate on working holiday makers to a 19% tax rate earlier this year.

However, the Opposition wants amendments to the policy, including a suggested drop of the tax to 10.5%. A number of independents, including Jacqui Lambie and Pauline Hanson, also support a drop in the proposed rate.

The small business community has expressed a need for certainty both on backpacker tax rates and 457 visa regulations, but some say the entire debate is focused too much on “political point scoring” and not enough on the realities of finding good talent.

“The real issue is that there are businesses out there that need skilled workers, and then there people out there that are scamming the system,” Council of Small Business Australia chief executive Peter Strong told SmartCompany this morning.

“You balance that by better regulation – we have some good regulators here, let them regulate. That’s the only answer – what [politicians] are talking about is Armageddon one way or the other – the only real answer is absolutely better regulation.”

Many business sectors know that there is a shortage of qualified staff in their industries, says Strong, and reducing the number of workers coming into the country as skilled employees won’t fix that gap.

“At the moment we have a VET system that’s hardly doing what we need. Changing the rules won’t create 1000 qualified chefs overnight, or a period of two years,” he says.

Instead of coming up with quality training solutions, the discussion has the risk of becoming heated but with no real outcomes, Strong believes.

“It’s appealing to the lowest common denominator on both sides.”

ACCI chief executive James Pearson says there needs to be more research into measures that will train Australian workers for available jobs.

“There is no evidence that further restricting the 457 skilled worker program will help more Australians find work. We need different strategies to address unemployment,” he said this week.